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How to cope with a terminal illness at Christmas

Christmas can be very distressing when you have a terminal illness. When festive cheer is all around but you know you are dying and this might be your last Christmas, this time of year can be unsettling. Likewise, it can be hard for loved ones to know how to act when they don't know how long they have left with a family member.

How can you practise self-care if you have a terminal illness at Christmas?

Matt Williams, head of information and support at Marie Curie, offers a range of tips for dealing with Christmas if you are terminally ill. It's really important for you to practise self-care and prioritise your own needs over putting on a brave face and smiling for the enjoyment of everyone else.

Split Christmas into small blocks

Don't put too much pressure on yourself to achieve big things or see everybody you know this Christmas. Breaking the festive period up into chunks can prevent it from becoming overwhelming, and allows you to schedule rest time.

Do what feels comfortable

There is no rule book for Christmas. There isn't a 'right' or a 'wrong' way to celebrate it, and it's natural for things to look different if you have a terminal illness. There will be things to consider that you haven't needed to think twice about previously. Just do what feels right, and it's fine if those plans change throughout the day as your mood shifts.

Know it's OK to be different

While a full roast dinner is the 'traditional' Christmas meal, it isn't right for everyone. If chicken soup is all you fancy, or cheese on toast feels more manageable, you can replace your roast with an alternative.

Don't overload your diary

Try not to commit to too much, especially if you're making plans in advance. You don't know how you'll feel on the day, and you don't want to burn yourself out. Don't over-fill your diary or feel pressured to commit to every event.

Ask others to share the load

If you need help buying or wrapping gifts, cooking, decorating or doing anything at all, ask your loved ones to lend a hand. It might be difficult to do this at first, especially if you're used to hosting Christmas or doing everything by yourself. It can be hard to accept that you aren't able to do what you used to. But, your loved ones will want to help so you aren't struggling. It's also fine to skip things like presents if you don't feel up to it.

Schedule in 'me' time

Rest and relaxation are really important, especially if you want to spend time with your family this Christmas and enjoy yourself. Be sure to have alone time, take naps, get some fresh air and be extra gentle with yourself. You might also want to pamper yourself, but make sure nothing contradicts any treatment or medication.

Focus on what brings you joy

Watch your favourite Christmas movies with family, listen to your favourite music and read books you enjoy (you can listen to an audiobook if you don't have energy to read). Those things require little physical exertion and remind you that there is still joy to be found in Christmas. They can also provide you with great comfort and offer opportunities to reminisce on fond memories with loved ones, if you'd like to do that.

How can you still enjoy Christmas without worrying about death?

Williams recommends speaking to healthcare professionals before the festive break to ensure you have adequate care and support in place. You should also think about 'just in case' medications, which your GP can help with.

"It's a good idea to have emergency and back-up plans in place in case of a change in circumstances. Likewise, try to have already had care-planning conversations with family, friends and carers. These can be difficult and upsetting, but they mean people can be clear on your wishes," he says.

Additionally, just because it's Christmas doesn't mean you can't talk about your emotions or fear. It's fine, and actually beneficial, to express your worries and concerns, no matter the time of year. You aren't burdening anyone or bringing the mood down.

What can loved ones do to be supportive?

If a loved one has a terminal illness, you might struggle to know how to act around Christmas time. Perhaps you want to be happy and celebrate with them, but don't want them to think you're being insensitive. Similarly, if the mood were to be sombre, you'd hate them to remember this Christmas as a sad one.

Williams has some tips for supporting a loved one with a terminal illness and making their Christmas as stress-free as possible.

  • Offer to help with any Christmas shopping or wrapping gifts.
  • Offer to help with Christmas decorations.
  • Suggest an alternative to presents (this could be going for a meal out or visiting a Christmas market, if the person is able to).
  • Invite the terminally ill person for dinner and suggest they won't have to cook it themself.
  • Offer to take dinner to their house if that's where they are most comfortable.
  • Ask what the terminally ill person would like to do and respect their wishes.

What kind of gifts can you buy for someone who is terminally ill?

You will know your loved one better than anyone, but you might struggle to decide on a Christmas present for them if you know they have a terminal illness. Williams says you should ask them what they would like, to avoid upsetting or distressing them. It's also a good idea to think outside the box. Rather than buying them a tangible object, perhaps you could help them complete a practical task, or they might just want to spend quality time with you.

"Gifts do not have to come in packages or be things you wrap up. Some gifts are simply kind thoughts or actions. Maybe they would prefer you to make a donation to a charity of their choice," says Williams.

However, if you do want to buy them something, here are some suggestions:

  • An audio book or CD.
  • Personal gifts like lotions or blankets.
  • Memory books to fill in for loved ones.
  • Family photos.
  • Crafts made by grandchildren.
  • A day trip out if they are able to.
  • A hamper of their favourite food.

Where can terminally ill people and their loved ones find support this Christmas?

In preparation for Christmas, talk to healthcare professionals about who to contact and when to contact them if things go wrong or you need assistance. It's particularly important to have support in place and emergency contacts to hand outside of working hours and over bank holidays. If your loved one has a carer, arrange a schedule with them well in advance of Christmas.

You can also contact the Marie Curie Support Line on 0800 090 2309.

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